Workplace health promotion tactics could increase weight stigma, says study

Workplace health promotion programmes that encourage employees to take responsibility for their own weight may have detrimental effects on staff with obesity, a new study published in Frontiers in Psychology has revealed.

A research team from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Leeds Beckett University in the UK conducted a series of surveys and psychological tests on employees and a group of undergraduate student volunteers and found that when people are confronted with concepts from an employee-focused health programme, weight stigma and weight-based discrimination increased compared with the results of an employer-focused programme. 

The consequences of encouraging employees to be responsible for their weight range from feeling increasingly responsible for being overweight but perceiving they have less control over it, to increased workplace weight stigma and discrimination. The effects could even lead to increased obesity and decreased wellbeing, the study has shown.

The data also found that these pitfalls could be avoided through programmes focusing on the employer’s responsibility to maintain employee health instead. For instance, a sign in a canteen stating, “Watch your weight and choose healthy options” is employee-focused, whereas an employer-focused policy would involve offering only healthy food options to support mindful eating. 

“We are often told it’s someone’s own responsibility, but people tend to forget that the institutions that shape our immediate environment strongly influence our behaviour,” said Professor Laetitia Mulder, from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.   

“In general, people judged a woman with obesity in a photo to be lazy, unattractive, slow and as having less will power compared with a woman without obesity. However, this effect became stronger when people had been confronted with concepts from an employee-focused programme.” 

The research also found that this effect even extended to outright weight discrimination. People exposed to employee-focused health promotion concepts were more likely to prefer hiring a woman without obesity over a woman with obesity. This increased discrimination did not occur in people exposed to employer-focused health promotion concepts.  

You can read the full report here